Well today is Veteran's Day. It is that day of the year when I can get a lot of free stuff. I got my free meal from the Applebees. It was a great time to spend with my daughter after horse back riding lessons. I don't understand how my meal was free and I still ended up spending 50 bucks. Oh well. It was money well spent.
I have been thinking all day about what Veteran's Day means to me. I could talk about my own service, or the service of the 1st Infantry Division in WWI that help to end the "war to end all wars". However, that is not where my mind goes. I spent a year in Iraq. It was 2004 so stability was not quite established. Baghdad may have fallen, but the rest of the country had yet to get the memo. I was right in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. I was right in Saddam's own backyard near the city of Tikrit.
There are a couple of things that I would like to share about my time. Sort of my own personal reflection on Veteran's Day. First, the insurgents that fought in Iraq are not known for their expert marksmanship. When they would mortar our base it was usually in such a hurried way that if they were to kill anyone it would be a miracle. They aren't particularly sold on the idea of well-aimed shots. Muslim's have a concept they call "Inshallah". It means "God Willing". To them it wasn't necessary to aim, because if their cause was just God would direct their rounds and they would be successful. As I went from building to building and job site to job site at any moment a mortar could have come over the wire and ended my life. That is a strange way to live. If it were to happen I just hoped it wouldn't happen when I was in the portajohn or shower. It is one thing to get caught with your pants down, but that would just be too much.
After a while, when the immediate fear of being killed at any moment I began to adopt a similar attitude. If I were going to die in Iraq, there was little that I could have done to prevent it. Inshallah, I would survive my time in country and go home to my family. There was really no other way to deal with the daily threat. We came to get accustomed to the mortars. Every evening it seemed like clock work that they would lob a couple over the wire. We even came to refer to that time as mortar thirty. It wouldn't have matter how I did at the range, or if I had learned all my individual movement techniques. None of that would have done me any good. It ultimately was all in God's hands. They bring up the most troubling question for a person like me. Why? Why would God spare me and allow so many others to lay down their lives there in that awful place? What could he possibly do with me? I suppose even to this day I am trying and struggling to find the answer to that question. I almost feel cheap eating a free meal. It was purely by chance that I didn't come home in a flag drapped coffin when so many others did and still do. I suppose I am allowed to stand proudly, because I was there and ready to lay down my life. I was there and ready to do what needed to be done at that moment that never came. Sometimes, I just feel like I didn't give enough. I could have done more. Sometimes, I just don't like all this attention on me. Just a thought.
Sometimes I like to bring attention to myself, but it is never for me. I want to talk to you about a couple of guys. They are real heroes in ever since of the word. Unfortunately, neither one of them was able to have a free meal today. They are gone, but I will never forget them.
The first person I would like to introduce you to is Samuel Bowen. He had served in the military in the past, and after September 11th thought that it was time to do what he could for his country. He reenlisted into the Ohio Army National Guard. He was a cook in the civilian world and that is the job he chose when he rejoined the military. In the winter of 2004, Samuel deployed with the 216th Engineer Battalion to AO Danger in Tikrit, Iraq. He and the 216th were attached to the First Infantry Division. Now when we arrived in country all of our chow was catered courtesy of KBR. This left the battalion with a question as what to do with the cooks that had been deployed along with us. It was decided that the cooks would be in charge of the Battlion's MWR facilities. That meant for the duration that all of our cooks would be responsible to monitoring the computer lab and the phones. They would check people in and make sure that everyone had an equal opportunity to call or to email home. It was an important job, but it was not enough for Samuel. I guess in his mind he had not left his family to be a computer monitor in a distant land. He volunteered to be a driver for an NCO. Once my roommate and him made the trip from FOB Speicher to LSA Anaconda. LSA Anaconda was affectionately referred to as "Mortaritaville". Their convoy had driven other soldiers to the LSA so that they could catch a flight home for leave. While they were there awaiting their time to return to Speicher that afternoon, Samuel went to the PX. A rocket came in a struck the outside of the building. Samuel was hurt but not severely. I remember my roommate was just shocked, that after all that Samuel insisted on drive their vehicle back to Speicher. It wasn't but a few weeks later that I arrived home on leave, only to find out that Samuel had went out on another convoy and had been killed by an RPG. The thing about Samuel that will always stick with me, is that he didn't have to be there. He could have stayed right at Speicher and never put himself in that type of danger. No one would have thought any less of him. He just couldn't allow himself to do that. That type of devotion to his fellow soldiers, who were putting themselves in danger daily, is why he will always be one of my heroes. That is also why I am thinking about him this Veteran's Day.
The next person I would like to introduce you to is SSG Lance Koenig. SSG Koenig was assigned to the 141st Engineer Battalion. They were trailblazers. That means that everyday in rotating schedules they would roll up and down the convoy route looking for anything that could kill soldiers or anything that may have been used to conceal something that could kill soldiers. In August of 2004, I had the privilege of riding along with SSG Koenig and a 141 patrol. What astonished me the most is that when it came to dangerous things that had to be done the NCO's were the first ones out of the trucks. I remember being told a couple of times myself to get back in the truck as the convoy commander said I got this. In the army there is a way of doing things. In order to preserve the leadership, when there is a dangerous task to be completed you start at the lowest man and you work your way up. It is just unheard of for NCOs to behave like this. SSG Koenig was outranked by only one other person in the whole convoy, but it was he and the convoy commander that would dismount and clear any debris. Most of the time it was pieces of inner tube or just other assorted trash. On the morning of September 22nd 2004, I grabbed all my gear and headed down the street for another mission with the 141. We were all packing up and mounting weapons, when we were told to stand down. Apparently, SSG Koenig had been on the convoy that had left earlier that morning. He dismounted the vehicle to clear a piece of debris. When he moved the debris it trigger a grenade or something and he was mortally wounded. They rushed him to the nearest camp, but it was too late. SSG Koenig laid down his life that day. Here is a man who could have sent a nineteen year old kid out to move that garbage. He could not stand the thought of one of his soldiers being injured or killed, and so he did it himself. That is why he will always be my hero.
I thought I would just share a little this Veteran's Day. Free meals are great, and handshakes are good too. But please do not forget those Veteran's that didn't make it back for those free meals and handshakes. When you shake my hand, know that I am thinking of them.